EDUCATION MINISTRY HINDRANCE TO SKILLS TRAINING.
As the skills and productivity crisis deepens, the Department for Education has come under savage attack from the mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City region.
Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are getting into their stride in speaking for the North on a range of issues as was evidenced at a packed Downtown meeting this week. There wasn’t a single reference to strained relations between the core cities of Liverpool and Manchester, just a demonstration of the easy relationship that the two politicians share. This is important for the northern voice. Oh, that it was replicated in Yorkshire where rival councils are knocking nine bells out of each other over devolution models. Or in Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria where to describe progress on devolution as glacial would be to insult those magnificent features of the natural world.
After their election in May both men had very different starts. Burnham acquired a large staff at his Oxford Street headquarters in Manchester, although he said he envied Rotheram’s ability to shape his own team. That was a reference to the “Mary Celeste” situation faced by the Liverpool City Region mayor when he took office. Rotheram inherited no staff and a difficult relationship with Liverpool city mayor Joe Anderson.
Both men were just back from visits to Paris and New York and have realised that they need to impress the world, not just the government, that the North is a great place to invest in.
Raising skill levels is one of their main aims and you’d think the Department for Education would be an ally. Not so apparently. Rotheram said it was the least responsive department in Whitehall and needed a good kicking. The mayors wanted to control skills spending locally and show young people that there are routes to success other than through university by boosting vocational training. Burnham had been to his kid’s Year 9 options meeting where the ICT teacher had no takers while the pupils queued for humanities subjects.
Now in office the mayors want to tone down the politics to appeal to business. They feel firms in the two sub regions would feel more comfortable dealing with them than the highly politically charged Westminster village. They are working with other elected mayors including West Midlands Tory Mayor Andy Street.
Transport is another area where the mayors have given a voice to the North. With Downtown providing the launch pad they had launched a salvo of criticism over the government’s broken promises in the summer. They claimed it had born fruit to some extent with Liverpool City Region getting two “touch points” with HS2 and the Chancellor announcing a £400m cash boost for northern transport at the party conference. All well and good but still small potatoes compared with transport spending in London.
While stressing that their door was open to business, the mayors fired a shot across the bows of house builders saying the emphasis on developers needs had to change to provide the affordable housing that is in short supply. Andy Burnham made a striking remark that may meet with a mixed reception in his outer boroughs. He said they needed to shrink their retail offer and increase the space for housing.
Finally, on Brexit, the mayors had recently met with Brexit Minister David Davis. Burnham had told him that Greater Manchester exported 58% of its exports to the EU compared with the national average of 44%. No deal would be a very bad deal for him. Rotheram, also a Remainer, nevertheless said the port of Liverpool stood ready to welcome global opportunities post Brexit.
It is too early to say whether these politicians will actually deliver their visions, but people can begin to see how City Region mayors might make a difference in the absence of what we really need, which is powerful regional government.
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